Recently, I decided to watch the movie “Yentl,” which is now, to my great delight, streaming on HBO Max. And while some of its stylistic elements may feel a bit dated, it is mostly just as fresh and enchanting — and arguably even sexier — more than four decades after its release.
Based on the Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” and directed by and starring none other than Barbra Streisand herself, the 1983 movie tells the story of a young woman, Yentl, in 1904 Poland who, after the death of her beloved father — who taught her the wisdom of Jewish texts in secret — disguises herself as a man in order to join a yeshiva. There, she takes on the name of Anshel, a name that Streisand saw on a neighboring grave while she was visiting her father’s tombstone.
While Singer himself was not a fan of what Streisand did with his story, the movie was, at least critically, a triumph. It made Streisand the first ever woman to win a Golden Globe for best director (it took nearly 40 years for another woman, Chloe Zhao, to win, which is a literal shanda). Its infectious score, created by Michelle Legrand and lyricists Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman, won an Academy Award. It was framed as a romantic movie, but its romance has a larger breadth than your typical romcom. It’s more messy and complicated and glorious — even more so now, in 2023.
“Yentl” is, first and foremost, a love story between a father and his daughter — the daughter that he allowed to study Torah with him, despite the fact that in 1904, that was all but forbidden. The tale follows the mold of many feminist Jewish texts — from Osnat Barzani to Judith Kaplan — in which all it took was an ally — in these cases, a father who saw the wisdom in his daughter — to open doors for women, allowing them to soar to new and well-deserved heights in Jewish scholarly and ritual tradition. “Papa Can You Hear Me,” the most iconic song of the movie, was, for Streisand, an ode to her father who died when she was 14 months old. She dedicated the movie to him.
But we cannot ignore the, ahem, romantic aspect of this film (it’s me, I can’t ignore it). Yentl is an incredibly scintillating love triangle — or maybe even love rectangle — between herself as Yentl/Anshel, Anshel’s fellow yeshiva scholar and roommate Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin), and Hadass (Amy Irving), Avigdor’s fiance — who, after a dark truth is revealed about Avigdor’s family, winds up marrying Anshel, and later — spoiler alert — Avigdor.
Irving, Patinkin and Streisand all give magnetic, impassioned performances in the movie. It’s a pleasure to watch these three beautiful Jewish actors onscreen (I do feel like the only injustice of the movie is that it didn’t let Patinkin sing). Long before the endless discussion over whether Jewish characters should be played by Jewish actors, “Yentl” aced authentic Jewish casting.
“Yentl” is, forgive my language, sensuous and sexy AF. It’s full of meaningful sidelong glances, stolen touches, unfulfilled lust and longing, candle-lit carnal revelations and yes, who could forget that skinny dipping scene in which Patinkin’s butt was forever immortalized on film (very, respectfully, grateful for that).
Most people focus their “Yentl” thirst on Patinkin’s Avigdor. Letterboxd reviews of the movie from past years are full of people admiring his dreamboat-y ness. And yes, Patinkin, in the movie, is a total snack. I mean, watching Mandy Patinkin one night in “Yentl” will keep you burning up for at least eight nights — truly miraculous.
But he’s not the only piece of (very accomplished and talented) eye-candy in the movie. Babs as both Yentl and Anshel is absolutely stunning, with that nose and those blue eyes and those killer cheekbones. Streisand was told, by both Singer and Peters, her producing partner, that she was too old to play the role — I’m glad she didn’t listen to them.
And then there’s Amy Irving’s Hadass, with flowing brown curls, her longing for love and marriage, her wisdom and insistence and strength. Irving went on to star in “Crossing Delancey,” and she is truly the iconic Jewish romcom heroine.
In short, “Yentl” is a total celebration of semitic beauty.
But it’s also a surprisingly sensual love letter to Jewish texts. In the movie, Yentl, as both herself and Anshel, is full of wisdom and quotes the Talmud and the bible. Her insatiability for Jewish knowledge — the way she brightens whenever she’s discussing it — is what ultimately leads her to assume a new identity. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” she says, quoting Hillel, while walking into her new life.
Yentl is proud to be a woman who can argue about the Talmud, and she wants other women to feel empowered to be studious. When it comes to choosing between studying or being with the love of her life, the choice is not even there — Talmud wins every time.
It is because of her relentless passion for Jewish texts that Yentl falls for Avigdor — he is her equal, a man who shares her zeal for exploring and questioning Jewish tomes. Moments of sensual revelation are paired with discussions about whether or not Eve was created from Adam’s rib. A fraught wedding night is accentuated with allusive rabbinical quotes from Avigdor — and quelled by Yentl with arguments from the Talmud.
But there’s an added layer about “Yentl” and its approach to both sexuality and gender which is further illuminated while watching it all these decades later. In a rare interview, Streisand said that the movie is “about the male and the female in all of us, it’s about the androgyny of the soul.”
When it comes to both sexuality and gender, “Yentl” embraced a kind of queerness that was ahead of its time — and is still not often explored in movies. Avigdor and Anshel’s relationship, from very early on, goes beyond friendship. There are glances and stolen touches, a kind of intimacy that was not the norm among fellow scholars. And it’s a mutual magnetism — Avigdor professes to being drawn to Anshel long before he discovers the truth about Yentl. When he does learn that she’s a woman, he says, “No wonder, many times I looked at you, I touched you, I couldn’t understand why.”
In 1983, we were meant to accept that some part of Avigdor always knew Yentl was a woman, even if he never, ever treated Anshel as anything close to one. In today’s world, there are many words that could define Avigdor’s sexuality in that lens, but there’s also something so meaningful about the fact that it existed before these words came to be used and well-known.
As for Yentl, she is at her happiest and most comfortable as Anshel. There’s nothing about the way she walks in men’s clothes, in a man’s haircut, that make her feel like a woman wearing an ill-fitting disguise. Anshel is all confidence and exuberance — finally, truly, the person they were always meant to be, but that had to be hidden behind closed curtains. The only moments Anshel feels discomfort in a male presentation is when Anshel meets Hadass — whose feminine softness draws Avigdor in ways that Anshel can’t.
As someone who is always in conversation with their gender and sexuality, “Yentl” lives in that comfortably questioning fluid place that I relish. Perhaps because certain words and labels didn’t exist as ubiquitously in 1983, and definitely not in 1904, it manages to be more affirming than a movie that might mention all the possible concrete terms this tale seems to allude to — asexuality, demisexuality, pansexuality, bisexuality, non-binary, trans, genderfluid. Still, for every one of these identities, “Yentl” offers an affirming onscreen presentation.
These characters’ happy ending includes a complete sense of comfort and transparency when it comes to who they are — and their love for each other, as they are. Is there a better happy ending than seeing and being seen?
Four decades later, “Yentl” remains perhaps the best, and definitely the sexiest, Jewish love story ever made.